Mexico City

Perhaps Donald Trump should worry about Americans crossing the border into Mexico (instead of the other way around) because Mexico City was one of the most livable cities I’ve ever visited, with its cheap food, ideal weather year-round, and increasing environmental sustainability. “Livable” isn’t what I was expecting from this city, based on the stories and rumors I’d heard. I came to Mexico City prepared to pity the city that seems unfairly dangerous to so many Americans. That agenda went out the window as soon as we arrived, because I immediately realized that this city doesn’t need my pity at all. In some ways, life here is astoundingly better than in the U.S.

Home to a whopping 21 million people, Mexico City is the most populous city in North America and the largest Spanish-speaking city in the world. It’s located at an altitude of over 7,000 feet — roughly the same as Machu Picchu. Due to its tropical latitude but high elevation, it has a temperate climate — never too cold in the winter nor too hot in the summer. The city is the oldest capital city in the Americas, and is one of only two capital cities founded by Native Americans (the other is Quito, Ecuador). Originally called Tenochtitlan, it was built on an island in Lake Texcoco, a natural lake that was eventually drained by Spanish colonists. Tenochtitlan was an impressive sight laced with canals, and bridges connecting it to the mainland — much like Venice. Of course, the Spanish completely destroyed Tenochtitlan in 1521 and, while preserving the ancient city’s basic layout, built Catholic churches over the old Aztec temples and renamed it “México” because the Spanish found this indigenous word easier to pronounce.

A few decades ago, Mexico City was infamous for being one of the world’s most polluted cities; however, the city has become a model for drastically lowering pollution levels, which are now similar to those of Los Angeles. Much of this is thanks to Mexico City’s many modes of public transportation, from the subway, to suburban rail, light rail, buses, trolleys, and a bike sharing system with well-defined bike lanes. We caught the subway a couple of times but usually either walked because Mexico City is a surprisingly walkable city for such a sprawl, or caught Ubers because Ubers are dirt-cheap.

We stayed at an Airbnb in trendy Colonia Roma partly because some of the city’s hottest restaurants are there, but the most memorable meals we had were street food from outdoor stalls and markets. Mexico has one of the most extensive street food cultures in the world, and it’s not a surprise that Mexico City consistently ranks as “the number one food destination in the world.” The skilled cooks who prepare the tacos and tortas at these stalls are masters of their art and deserve just as much prestige as Japanese sushi chefs. Every major neighborhood has its own market(s) at which residents (“chilangos”) buy everything from fresh produce to spices to children’s toys. Meanwhile, outdoor stalls are set up around the city — near parks, along sidewalks, sometimes literally on the street. We ate delicious 30-cent tacos on plastic stools, jealous of all the chilangos eating alongside us.

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Living room of our Airbnb, which had a kitchen, laundry machine, rooftop, two bathrooms, and a doorman who we grew fond of

Tips for future travelers:

Take a food tour with Sabores. Our tour lasted four and a half hours and brought us all over Centro Histórico. We tried grasshopper salsa and ate ants from a plastic bag, learned what tomatoes should actually look like vs. what society wants them to look like, chewed chilcuague (a medicinal root that makes your whole mouth tingle, and makes water taste like sparkling water if you drink it right after one nibble of the root), and discovered what good mole is. Mole is a sauce made of fruit, chili pepper, and spices such as cinnamon and tomatoes, all of which are roasted and ground by hand for at least one day.

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Our food tour group
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Mole poblano
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Fresh birds at Mercado San Juan
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Seafood tostada
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Trying ants
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Picking up desserts at an old dulceria

Visit Coyoacán, my favorite neighborhood in Mexico City. It feels more like a small town due the numerous parks and cobblestone streets. The Frida Kahlo Museum and Trotsky House are located in Coyoacán, but even just wandering around this colorful neighborhood is enough to fall in love. Homes are painted bright colors, the plazas are full of families eating ice cream, and the massive Mercado de Coyoacán is the perfect spot for lunch.

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Coyoacan
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One of my favorite markets

Hang out in Zócalo, the main square in Mexico City. The term zócalo means “base” and was only adopted into the common Mexican lexicon in the 19th century. Supposedly, plans had been made to construct a large monument in the center of the plaza, but nothing besides the base was ever constructed, hence the term zócalo. The name stuck and even spread to other cities across Mexico, which began to use the term zócalo to refer to their main squares. We visited Zócalo almost every day because it was so centrally located and served as a meeting point for our tours. One day, we stumbled upon a huge Oaxacan festival there. Tents were set up and vendors sold Oaxacan goods, quickly convincing me that my next trip to Mexico must include Oaxaca, a state best known for its indigenous people and unique gastronomy.

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Zocalo

If you’re interested in architecture, check out Museo Soumaya, a stunning contemporary art museum covered by 16,000 hexagonal aluminum tiles. Also check out the Torre Latinoamericana, the world’s first major skyscraper successfully built on highly active seismic land. Torre Latinoamericana doesn’t look like much now, as its design is fairly straightforward and it is no longer the tallest building, but the fact that it withstood the 8.1 magnitude 1985 earthquake that toppled other buildings nearby is quite impressive. There is an observatory at the top that includes access to a gallery showcasing the history of construction projects around Mexico City.

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Museo Soumaya
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Look at those tiles!
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Torre Latinoamericana behind us

Stroll through Alameda Central, the oldest public park in the Americas. Some of our best meals were street tacos from two of the stalls on the southwest corner of the park that open up every night.

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Alameda Central
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This taco from a stall near Alameda Central was my favorite meal in Mexico

Palacio de Bellas Artes is an opulent performing arts center made of Carrara marble and dreanlike yellow and orange crystal dragon scale tiles. For the best view, you can wait an hour to sit in a crowded open-air cafe at Sears (yes! Sears still exists). For the second best view, squeeze your way through Sears’ gardening equipment on the same floor and see almost the same thing for free without a wait.

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In front of Palacio de Bellas Artes
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Carrara marble

The best way to get to Mexico City from the airport is to exit baggage claim and find a booth marked “Taxi Autorizado”. Tell the ticket seller your destination, pay for your ticket (we paid 200 pesos, or roughly ten bucks for a cab to Colonia Roma), and present the ticket to one of their drivers outside. The best way to return to the airport is to Uber; it’ll be even cheaper.

Don’t drink the tap water. Instead, try pulque, mezcal, jamaica (hibiscus juice), horchata, Mexican cola, or tequila. We were worried about the ice in our drinks since tap water is unsafe to drink, but we never had an issue; restaurants use filtered water for their ice, and most of the beverages you’ll have on the street don’t come with ice.

How can you tell if a food stall is safe? Look for the crowded ones. Locals tend to know what is good, and a busy one indicates that the food is not sitting around. We didn’t get sick once in Mexico City.

Book tickets to the Frida Kahlo Museum in advance. You’ll still have to wait in a line outside, but you’ll be able to enter as soon as it’s your time slot.

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Frida’s wheelchair in her studio
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Frida’s kitchen
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Obligatory photo with the azul wall
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Osaka

We only had two days in Osaka, but based on what little we got to see, Osaka reeked of second city. I don’t necessarily mean that in a negative way, as I love places like Chicago and Montreal, but compared to Tokyo, Osaka definitely felt grittier, smaller, and not as sleek.13620191_10105485963756463_2938286557068644221_nOur hotel, the enormous City Plaza Hotel, was such a stark contrast to the two intimate ryokans we had stayed at in Kyoto and Nara. In fact, both ryokans could have fit into our hotel’s lobby alone. Our room was filled with light and had a great view of the city.13669177_10209279438679549_3908596794613557134_n

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Notice the tea bags. I miss our fresh, unlimited green tea at our ryokans!
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View from our 10th floor room

For our first night, we walked to Dotonbori, a major tourist destination that runs along the Dotonbori canal. Originally a theater district, it is now an eccentric shopping and entertainment area characterized by restaurants and nightlife. At night, the area is quite beautiful, with small footbridges, lanterns lining the canal, and bright lights reflecting on the water. However, with all the tourist crowds and neon billboards, I couldn’t help but think of the Las Vegas strip.13627208_10105485922444253_1458037936029169268_n

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With the famous Glico marathon runner billboard, which is now an icon of the city

What Dotonbori does have that Las Vegas doesn’t is tons of great street food options. We tried one of Osaka’s specialties, takoyaki, which are wheat flour balls cooked in a molded pan, filled with bits of octopus, pickled ginger, and green onion, then brushed with takoyaki sauce and mayonnaise, and sprinkled with dried bonito shavings. Pretty much every other vendor in Dotonbori sells takoyaki, and a song about takoyaki is even blasted into the streets from various restaurants. We also had okonomiyaki, another Osaka specialty, from one of the restaurants in Dotonbori, which was wonderful. Okonomiyaki are savory pancakes made of flour, grated yam, eggs, shredded cabbage, and a variety of other ingredients, such as seafood or bacon. It is then pan-fried on both sides and often topped with thick okonomiyaki sauce, bonito flakes, pickled ginger, and mayonnaise. I make okonomiyaki at home, but the one we had in Osaka was even better.13654147_10209279532561896_5093205689946694665_n

Takoyaki

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Okonomiyaki

My favorite thing at Dotonbori was the Glico store. The Ezaki Glico Company started in 1922, but it wasn’t until 1966 that they released a new product into their family — a chocolate-coated pretzel-like cookie stick. Inspired by the Japanese onomatopoeia for the snapping sound made while eating these crispy sticks, they named their new product “Pocky.” In the beginning, these sticks were each hand-dipped in chocolate, leaving one end of the stick bare. Pocky sticks come in compact and easy-to-carry packaging that made it a perfect on-the-go snack. They can now be found everywhere, and apparently there’s even a Pocky truck that hands out free Pocky around the world. (Why have I not seen this in New York yet??)

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I love Pocky
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Some of our goodies from the Glico store: takoyaki-flavored shrimp chips, DreamPocky (chocolate, matcha, mango, strawberry, grape), and roasted tea Kit Kats

The next morning was rainy (and we had left our clear umbrellas in Kyoto), so we hung out at our hotel for a couple of hours and tried our hotel’s natural foot bath. Located outside in front of the lobby, it’s open to the public, which is impressive and notably un-American. We watched one man as he wiped down his wet feet after sitting in the foot bath, put his napkins in a small trash bag (he came prepared!), and suited back up to go to work. I sure wouldn’t mind having a foot bath every morning on my way to work!13654206_10209283811588869_4023560983845244479_n13612144_10105486489912043_6283245746540658824_nThe rain eventually stopped, so we made our way to Shinsekai, which felt like a less crowded version of Dotonbori. Apparently Shinsekai’s northern half was modeled after Paris’ Montmartre, but we must have only spent time in the southern half, which was modeled after New York’s Coney Island. It was daytime so we didn’t see the neon billboards, but the streets were lined with colorful advertisements, quirky statues, and more restaurants selling the same things. Until pretty recently, Shinsekai had a dangerous reputation owing to its homeless population and criminal activity that existed before the ’90s. However, it felt no different from Coney Island, which I guess is pretty seedy itself.13620945_10209286244489690_1605010247690735888_nWe tried another Osaka specialty, kushikatsu, at one of the many restaurants in Shinsekai. I wasn’t excited too excited for fried food, but I changed my mind as soon as I bit one of the skewers. These deep-fried meat and veggies on sticks are dipped into katsu sauce, which can be found in a tub on each table. A sign on our table said, “Please do not double-dip.” Kushikatsu is the epitome of fried food — light, crispy, and full of flavor. It sure put America’s onion rings and corn dogs to shame.14021569_10209686096565742_5434540530511867947_nAfter slumming it in Shinsekai, we decided to do a 180 and walk to Namba Parks, a luxury office and shopping complex with a rooftop garden and amphitheater for live shows. Osaka lacks outdoor parks, so Namba Parks was conceived as a way to add visible green to the city. The structure had a cool canyon design, and the bathrooms were impeccable, but I hope that Osaka continues to build actual parks throughout the city instead of spending money on lavish rooftop ones inside malls.13615045_10209285850239834_340197632386387217_nThere’s a common saying that in Kyoto, you spend your money on clothes, and in Osaka, you spend your money on food. I have to disagree. While we did see a lot of gorgeous kimonos worn throughout Kyoto, I certainly preferred our kaiseki meals there to the fried food in Osaka. Plus, my favorite Japanese foods (sushi and ramen) are actually specialties of Tokyo, not Osaka. For cheap street food, however, Osaka does win. Perhaps the saying should be changed: “In Kyoto, you spend your money on food and clothes, and in Osaka, you spend just a little money on street food.” I guess that doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Two days was too short to give Osaka the time it deserved, and I think I would have appreciated the city more if we had had a local guide instead of depending on travel books telling us where all the touristy hot spots are. I also think I would have been more impressed by neighborhoods like Dotonbori and Shinsekai if I wasn’t a New Yorker, and if I didn’t think they resembled Las Vegas (the tackiest place in the United States).

I had such a wonderful time in Japan that it would have been nice to return to my favorite city of Tokyo to feel complete before leaving, but it was time for us to head to the next country on our honeymoon: the Philippines, land of our people. Kamusta, Los Baños!13599788_10105486475999923_1668964974654408063_nTips for future travelers:

  1. If you liked Tokyo, you’re probably not going to like Osaka as much — and vice versa. Plan your trip (and prepare your heart) accordingly.